A top United Steelworkers of America negotiator Friday said union representatives will meet with Kaiser Aluminum Corp. officials this weekend to discuss ways to resolve a five-day-old strike against the company.
The disclosure was the first indication Kaiser, which has publicly maintained disinterest in talking with the Steelworkers, might come to the negotiating table.
Kaiser spokeswoman Susan Ashe acknowledged that new talks had been requested, but added “We have not scheduled any such meetings.”
The Steelworker official, who did not want to be identified, said the presidents of all five union locals involved in the Kaiser strike would meet in Salt Lake City, where another potential Steelworker strike against Geneva Steel looms.
He said Kaiser representatives would join them there.
Three-thousand Steelworkers went on strike Monday at Kaiser’s Mead and Trentwood plants, plus others in Tacoma, Ohio and Louisiana.
A letter of understanding that some union members say would have compromised job security was the main strike issue, but those walking the picket lines cited wages and medical care provisions as well.
The proposed contract was rejected last week by a vote of 1,448 to 1,211.
The union negotiator said the Steelworker team does not have a proposed settlement to take to Kaiser. But the representatives will be prepared to discuss some issues that might prompt agreement.
Nothing would be ruled out, he said. “It’s a new ballgame.”
If an agreement is reached over the weekend, a ratification vote could happen as soon as Monday, he said.
Ashe said Kaiser is open to a revote, but she reiterated that the company believes the previously negotiated contract was in the best interests of both labor and management.
“The company would not expect any substantive changes in that,” she said, declining to be more specific.
Although Ashe was guarded about the possibility of talks with the Steelworkers, she did not rule them out.
“It depends on what comes out of their (own) meeting,” she said.
Friday, Steelworker spokesman Gary Hubbard said rejection of the first contract was the result of mixed signals from local presidents and a strong desire by the rank and file to signal negotiators they wanted something better.
The naysayers were probably as surprised as anyone that their message precipitated the strike, he said.
With the message delivered, the question becomes how to improve on a pact union officials knew was flawed but felt was the best that could be obtained from Kaiser, he said.
“Don’t expect this company is going to cough up something quickly,” Hubbard said. “But our Kaiser members have demonstrated that enough is enough.”
Duane Leigh, chairman of the Washington State University Department of Economics, said each side in the strike has demonstrated its willingness to take the other on.
But in a global economy, he said, management probably has the upper hand. Restoration of the wages and benefits sacrificed in the 1980s to help the company survive is unlikely, he said.
“It’s a much more competitive world,” Leigh said. “All kinds of people have suffered real losses in wages and benefits.”
Hubbard said all parties would be better off if the aluminum industry would follow the lead of steelmakers who, after shutting down mill after mill and doggedly resisting change, tried accommodation with labor rather than confrontation.
He said Steelworker representatives now sit on company boards of directors, and power-sharing extends from the shop floor to executive suite.
“We do not enjoy that with any of the aluminum companies,” he said.
MEMO: This is a siedbar that appeared with this story: Talks Presidents of five union locals will meet with Kaiser officials today in Salt Lake City.